On the night of April 4, 1968, in a poverty-stricken Indianapolis neighborhood, Robert Kennedy climbed on a flatbed truck and gazed through the darkness at an angry, jeering crowd. He grabbed a microphone, took a deep breath, and delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history.
His audience was poor. His audience was black. Kennedy, meanwhile, came from one of the richest families in America; and his job was to announce the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, gunned down in Memphis by another white man.
The crowd had no reason to listen to him. They had no reason to listen to any white politician. Four hundred years of slavery and segregation and oppression, and for what? For their first leader of true national prominence to be shot to death just for saying “I have a dream”? They were done with white America, and their jeers let Robert Kennedy know it.
“What are you doing here, whitey?”
But that was before he began to speak.
Kennedy reached into his communications toolbox and drew out the most powerful weapon human beings possess: empathy. He didn’t try to control the crowd’s reaction. Instead, he told them he understood how they felt. He understood their rage. Their helplessness. Their desire for revenge. He had stood in their shoes, he reminded them, when he lost his own brother to brutal political violence five years earlier.
Robert Kennedy was a private man, a shy and sensitive man. Until that night, he’d never referenced John F. Kennedy’s murder in public. The long silence only made his eulogy for Dr. King more powerful.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy admitted. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But,” he urged, “we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Kennedy went on. A sharp turn, to be sure, from current turmoil to ancient Greek wisdom, but this was a speech from the heart. “He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Men and women in the crowd saw tears glisten in Robert Kennedy’s eyes.
“What we need in the United States is not division.” The words rang out insistent and fierce in the cultured Boston accent. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
When he first took the microphone, the jeers had turned to silence. Now, the silence turned to cheers.
His listeners went home quietly, comforted in some measure by the hope Kennedy held out. He was running for president that year. He heard their concerns. He understood their pain. He wanted to bring them justice. They, in turn, wanted to stand behind him. There were riots in one hundred American cities that night, and twelve people died. But no rioting broke out in Indianapolis.
Tragically, the people in that crowd never got their chance to vote for Robert Kennedy.
He was shot to death two months later, on June 5, 1968.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.